Health & Fitness

Deadly falls on the rise among elderly

Mas Hatano knows he was lucky. When the 84-year-old retired civil engineer took a bad fall a couple of years ago, the only thing hurt was his pride.

“I tripped and crashed on the sidewalk,” he said. “As I sat there, a passing car stopped and the people asked if I was all right. Yes, except for my dignity.”

He is an exception to a deadly trend.

“The reasons are still being studied, but we can surmise what the data indicate,” said Barb Alberson, the California Department of Public Health’s state and local injury control chief. “Seniors are living longer. They’re living with multiple chronic conditions that raise the risk of a fall.”

And, she said, the medications for many of those illnesses — heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, benign prostate problems — can increase the possibility of falling, as well.

For example, powerful heart medications can cause dizziness. Combine that with commonly prescribed prostate drugs, which can cause fainting, as well as fragile bones prone to breaking, and it’s not hard to see how an elderly man can end up in the emergency room with a fractured hip.

From 2001 to 2010, the number of deadly falls involving Americans 85 and over jumped from 5,350 to 11,412, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the death rate for falls in that age bracket jumped 65 percent.

Hospitalization statistics are equally alarming.

“And the baby boom is coming,” said Rachel Zerbo, who manages the Safe and Active Communities fall prevention program at the Department of Public Health. “The need will only increase. We have our work cut out for us.”

With 76 million baby boomers edging into their senior years — many of them with the mindset that they’re eternally immune to growing older — the likelihood is that statistics related to falls will rise exponentially in coming decades.

Already, one-third of Americans 65 and older suffer falls each year, according to the CDC: For older adults, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death.

“My sense is there’s a perception among older adults and even health care providers that falls are an inevitable part of aging,” said Zerbo. “You fall, and you have to live with that.

“But the fact is, falls are preventable. We have evidence that we can prevent falls and the disabilities and decreased quality of life they cause.”

Fear of falling keeps many older adults off their feet, but failing to get up and move raises their risk of taking a potentially deadly tumble.

Some shuffle rather than picking up their feet, making them more vulnerable to falls. Some try to avoid the stereotypical stooped-over posture of old age — shoulders slumped, chin jutting forward, eyes to the ground — but when they throw their shoulders back, the shift in their center of gravity can tip them into falling backward.

In another effort to stem the tide of fall-related mortality, California State University, Sacramento, biomechanics professor David Mandeville has created a prototype device that he hopes will one day monitor older adults’ body position and alert medical professionals when seniors are in danger of falling.

“It’s very new research,” he said. “The context is remote monitoring through telemedicine. That’s the beauty of it.”